Demonstrating Robotics at the Museum of Science and Industry

Andrew Thompson looks back on what he and his fellow Master of Science in Robotics (MSR) students took away from sharing their work at one of Chicago's iconic museums.

Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry celebrated National Robotics Week with a Robot Block Party that highlighted robots designed by Chicago-area students. Northwestern's Master of Science in Robotics (MSR) students took part in the event and were able to share their projects with thousands of museum attendees.

The opportunity gave MSR students the chance to display their work and also practice presenting it to a wide-ranging audience. Afterward, MSR student Andrew Thompson took time to reflect on the experience.

How would you describe the overall experience presenting at MSI?

Presenting at MSI was a stellar experience and is easily one of the highlights of the program. The whole MSR cohort came together to wake up early (somewhat groggily), ride the train, load, caffeinate, unload, and support each other’s bots for a fun and informative weekend. Many of us have fond childhood memories of visiting the Museum of Science and Industry, and the feeling of being able to return some of that wonder to the attendees (children and adults alike) in the form of demos and discussions was deeply rewarding!

What project were you demonstrating?

I demonstrated a classically tuned Hexapod (‘six-legged’) robot with a multi-directional gait that could be controlled via Bluetooth. The gait (coordinated locomotion) was bio-inspired with ellipsoidal patterns of movement.

How did you describe your project to people with no knowledge of robotics?

I think that it’s often simplest to explain potentially difficult concepts by tying them to real-life analogs. In the case of my hexapod, I like to start the discussion by looking at six-legged insects. Many such insects support themselves with three legs in contact with the ground (like a camera tripod). To establish a walking pattern, the insect will then raise those three legs while simultaneously placing their other three legs in contact with the ground. By continuing this ‘alternating tripod’ pattern, the insect has continuously stable footing during a walking cycle. My hexapod also walks according to the alternating tripod model.

Aside from theory, being able to interact with a device is a great way to learn about it (especially for younger audiences). Attendees were all welcome to control the hexapod’s motion via a Bluetooth-connected PS3 controller.

What challenges did you face with so many different audiences interacting with you?

A common challenge with any sort of technical demo for an audience of highly variable age and background is in providing the right level of information to answer questions and incite interest without providing too much jargon. I think it is easy to alienate a person if you dive directly into the nuts and bolts without providing a ‘bigger picture’ reason for your project.

Another common hazard I experienced was when an adult would present in-depth theoretical questions at the same time as a child deciding to use my robot as a football. Thankfully, my hexapod is made from fairly robust plastic and can take a bit of a beating!

What was your favorite part of the experience?

My favorite part of the experience is a three-way tie between seeing kids fight over the Hexapod controller, hearing parents talk about how much their children are interested in robotics, and, of course, getting to see the demos from all the other labs and schools.

What did you learn from the opportunity?

I learned how to better explain my work to a variable audience, as well as how to do on-site spot fixes on my robot mid-demo.

What do you hope audiences learned from you?

I hope that attendees started thinking about gait — either the way that other animals walk or the way that they themselves walk. I also hope that folks learned a bit about legged robots and the ways that robotic devices can take inspiration from nature.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

To anyone with an interest in robotics and a desire to attend a Masters program, I cannot recommend MSR enough. Aside from excellent opportunities like presenting your work at MSI, the resources that MSR affords toward learning many aspects of robotics are invaluable — complete with access to the tools and guidance to actualize those aspects into a functional device.